Saturday, February 20, 2010

When to use saidisms.

A 'saidism' is one of those nifty replacements for 'said'.
He whispered, he noted, he declared, he suggested, he promised and so on and on and on.  

You run into the rule sometimes --
No Saidisms.

And it just seems so wrong.

What it is . . .

there's this unfortunate tendency of novice writers to pluck creative dialog tags, apparently at random, from a list they have in the back of their three-ring binder from sixth grade.

This leads the friendly folks who put together writing books to grow thin and haggard and tear their hair out and make a rule
No Saidisms
which probably relieves their minds considerably,

but it's, like, y'know, more of a guideline.

When do we use saidisms?
Lots of places.

Pretty obviously, the first thing we ask ourselves when we come up with a nifty saidism is whether this word
-- and all the information packed into this word --
has been put into a dialog tag because we need that information.

Are we writing he complained because the complaining is important
or have we just decided to tag dialog in a novel way because we're sick of using 'said' and Mrs. Grundy told us in sixth grade not to repeat words?


A dismaying proportion of the saidisms used by novice writers are information that
-- does not need to be conveyed,
-- or can be revealed another, better, way,
-- or is exaggerated or inappropriate.



When you use a saidism, what you get, a lot of times, is:

"I'll tell them to leave the mayo off your sandwich," Maurice stated . . . (or declared, cajoled, promised, expostulated, argued, complained, opined, or maintained.)

Really.  No.
Don't use that saidism.  Use 'he said.'
Maurice didn't promise or declare.
He just said it, for Pete's sake.


Before we use a saidism, we assure ourselves the saidism is logical and necessary and not exaggerated and we're dealing with information the reader must be told.


Even if this is necessary information -- is a dialog tag is the best way to get it across to the reader??

The brute force way to determine this is to try out a couple different techniques that convey this necessary and exciting information.

One way to convince ourselves we don't really need to tell the reader that Maurice is asserting and maintaining and cajoling about mayonnaise is to drag those saidisms out of the dialog tag and put them into action or internals.  That's when we suddenly realize that Maurice ain't doing any such thing as cajoling, nohow.



Anyhow . . . let's say we got this character is whispering.

First we satisfied ourselves that the character is really whispering
and not just 'saying'.  

We also decided we need to tell the reader the character is whispering
and we have decided that the nature of the dialog itself and the surrounding action does not at this time make it clear this is all in whispers.


Ok.  So, having got those questions out of the way, we look at our saidism as a dialog tag --

She whispered, with a child’s simplicity, “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.”

We change it around a bit. Take it out of the dialog tag and put it into action or description or internals.

They could only speak in whispers. She said, with a child’s simplicity, “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.”

We convey it in Internal Monolog.

I must not be overheard. She said, with a child’s simplicity, “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.”

We drop the information into description.

“I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.” The words snaked out from under the rain; words made of cool wavery sounds.


When we look at these couple alternatives, the simplicity of simply laying out the whisper as a dialog tag is obvious.
We place the saidism in this sentence and we know it's right.
We can break that 'no saidisms rule' and still sleep easily at night which is nice.



Speaking generally, it has been my experience that verbs in the class of saidisms that relate to the actual mouth-moving action of speaking,
like whispered, murmured, muttered, yelled, spat out, grated under his breath, and so on
 are the most apt to become elegant and thrifty dialog tags.

They are simple, straightforward actions that lend themselves to expression as simple action verbs.

Having determined that we should tell the reader about the mouth movements, we may often do this with a saidism.


Moving along -- there is a much larger class of saidisms that show intent and emotion. Avowed, complained, averred, promised, guessed, questioned, concluded, wished, harassed, rejoiced, mourned, remembered, and so on.

These are the saidisms that end up getting latched onto sentences that do not deserve them.
What we tend to forget is that these are powerful words. You can't just drop them down anywhere.

This is where we get the infamous:

"I'll tell them to leave the mayo off your sandwich," he promised. Or avowed, stated, maintained, declared, cajoled, expostulated or stone-walled.

All those words are too important and exciting to get attached to a sentence about mayo.  They are BIG.  In this case, he didn't promise or declare.
He just said it, for Pete's sake.


Speaking very generally again,
these saidisms that carry intent and emotion are full of complex information and abstract concepts.

The concepts are so big and floppy they want to spread out comfortably in Internal Monolog, in other internals, or in the dialog itself, or in really sneaky and significant accompanying action.
 The information -- and we are assuming it is vitally necessary information and relevant and all that -- doesn't like to be crammed into a dialog tag.

Let's say we have something to say about Hawker's state of mind.

“You don’t eat your own donkey. And you don’t use your own woman as bait,” Hawker complained. "That’s one of those delicate distinctions gentlemen make.”


or

“You don’t eat your own donkey. And you don’t use your own woman as bait,” Hawker said sarcastically. "That’s one of those delicate distinctions gentlemen make.”

But let's put it into action instead.

“You don’t eat your own donkey. And you don’t use your own woman as . . .” Hawker kicked a loose chunk of cobble in the gutter. It rolled end-over-end and rapped up against a wall. “bait. That’s one of those delicate distinctions gentlemen make.”

The action carries the big, complex emotion in a way the dialog tag can't.

 If we have an emotion to convey, we take it out of the dialog tag where it is all cramped up and simplified. We stop trying to compress big important emotion into the tone of a voice. In IM, in action, in description, we can use more words, basically.
And it lets us pull in some images we got lying around in our brains doing nothing in particular.


The final class of saidism is the fairly innocuous
replied, answered, repeated, interrupted, cut off, and so on.

These talk about the mechanics of the dialog train. Useful friends of the writer, this lot, but only if the answering or repeated or interrupting is significant.

We don't use them when it is obvious that one line of dialog is in answer to the other. (Well . . . duh.) We don't use them when the act of answering or repeating is not in itself important.


The whole -- 'when do we use saidisms' question -- is like talking about anything else in writing.  You read the advice in the writing books.  Take some.  Leave some.  Some gets rained out.

17 comments:

  1. Thanks for the lightbulb on dialogue! Putting it in action is so effective.

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  2. Very very helpful. As per.

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  3. Thank you so much. Hope it is some help.

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  4. Anonymous2:30 PM

    And sometimes you put it in because otherwise you have no idea who said what. The challenge of reading Ivy Compton-Burnett can make saidisms a lot more attractive....

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  5. @ Anon --

    It's disconcerting not to know who the speaker is, isn't it?

    When I just want to tell folks who is talking, and I don't have any other information to get across, I'm apt to use 'said'.

    Nothing fancier.

    'He said', is pretty much invisible. It's like . . . I dunnoh . . . it's like the closing quote marks. Necessary and useful, but you don't 'see' them when you're reading along.

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  6. "Oh, my God," she ejaculated dismayed-ly. "I've been doing it all wrong!"

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  7. @ Linda --

    To avoid TomSwifties, one should avoid not only saidisms, but also the said-adverbly, Jo opined woodenly.

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  8. Wonderful, thank you!

    I'm curious about your thoughts on adverbs-as-dialog tags and adverbs with dialog tags.

    Asked because I ran across a recent top-ten list of Thou Shalt Nots, and the editor seemed to finger adverbs as the henchminions of choice for bad writing.

    I can understand the protests against, "Congratulations," softly < where there is no formal saidism, just an adverb used to suggest one.

    I have a harder time with the combination of, 1) Thou Shalt Not Use Verbs Other than Said for Dialog, and 2) Thou Shalt Not Use Adverbs with Said.

    So much of good dialog seems to hang on getting out of the way, so that context and through-line are clear. So I tend not to use said, saidisms or adverbs, until I want to emphasize who's speaking or how they spoke.

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  9. Hi Tacita Sempronia --

    I got to talking endlessly about this, so I pulled the response up to a posting. A deeply scattered and discursive posting, but a posting nonetheless.

    I love the word nonetheless and I get so few opportunities . . .

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  10. The action carries the big, complex emotion in a way the dialog tag can't.

    Or put another way: the action shows while the dialogue tag (whether saidism or adverb) tells. Which is why the short version so often falls flat. It's like explaining a joke to someone who can get it without your help, thankyouverymuch.

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  11. Hi Beth --

    Right exactly. If you have to say he said it wildly or he sneered it, there's probably something you should be doing with narrative or action or the dialog itself.

    Not always, by any means. But often enough so a bell should ring in your head when you reach for that informational saidism.

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  12. Nicely said. I've bookmarked this for the next time someone asks about saidisms.

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  13. Yup. There's seldom a simple 20-word rule for anything. This writing stuff is complicated.

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  14. Anonymous11:15 AM

    Thank you very much for the author of this article. It realy helps. I've been asked by my teacher to look for the Isms of my name, my last name 'SAID' and I found it. Thank you very much.

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  15. Well, I'm very glad indeed that this helps you out.

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  16. You're not giving any /reasons/ why it's better to convey information in action, description, etc., than in a speech tag. Look at what you wrote:


    >She whispered, with a child’s simplicity, “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.”

    We change it around a bit. Take it out of the dialog tag and put it into action or description or internals.

    They could only speak in whispers. She said, with a child’s simplicity, “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.”

    We convey it in Internal Monolog.

    I must not be overheard. She said, with a child’s simplicity, “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.”

    We drop the information into description.

    “I do not need to see your face, Citoyenne Finch.” The words snaked out from under the rain; words made of cool wavery sounds.

    All those "improvements" are much worse than the original, IMHO, and the last changes the meaning entirely.

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    Replies
    1. I hope folks take away the idea that there's lots of ways to tag. It's not necessary to dip again and again into the bag of 'saidisms' and pull out an 'averred' or 'opined' or 'speculated'. If 'said' isn't right, try action, internals or description when it comes time to tag.

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